The first time I looked in the mirror and saw my freshly reduced breasts, I nearly passed out. Sorry to scare you, reader, but it was a grim sight — all gentian violet stipple marks, purpled bruises, puffy flesh, and sutures that made me look like the Bride of Frankenstein, and not in a sexy Halloween way. I hadn’t taken a shower in a week; the topic had become a source of considerable aggravation between my mom and me, but I kept nodding off anyway, so the point was mostly moot.
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It took me years to get to this point: countless cumbersome bras bought at awkward family trips to specialty stores, where prosthetic breasts gleamed like chicken cutlets in the fluorescent light; shoulder indentations; baggy clothes; and body piercing to try and rouse some feeling into my most loathed body parts. Apologies, mom, but I got my nipples pierced not once or twice but three separate times, the irony being that it’s awfully hard to heal what’s essentially a surface piercing on an F or G cup boob. The size of the cup is sometimes dependent on the maker and fit of the bra, and over the years, my cups crept towards a G. Still, I resisted surgery, and not just because my mom’s well-meaning but slightly tipsy friend once described in detail the old way they performed the surgery (“They put my nipples on the table!” is how she put it, way back in the early ’90s).
I didn’t want to get my breasts reduced because I thought it would make me a bad feminist. That I was somehow sticking it to The Man by not allowing myself relief from the increasing pain, both physical and mental, of waking up with backaches, wrestling with geriatric bras, and cursing shirts that buckled when I tried to button them. I don’t regret getting my nipples pierced (although in retrospect I should have probably given up after the first try). But I do regret not giving myself permission to do what I wanted with a body that made me miserable.
The first time I looked in the mirror and saw my freshly reduced breasts, I nearly passed out.
I started seriously considering the surgery after my father died in the spring of 2003. You’d be surprised what you feel capable of once you hold the hand of a parent taking his last breaths on Earth.
In 2004, I went to a consultation at a ritzy doctor’s office on the Upper East Side. A friend of a friend had got her reduction done there in the late ’90s; she’d presented her doctor with a copy of Drew Barrymore’s Playboy as an example of the breasts she wanted. (Barrymore is also a member of the formerly enormous boobs committee, so it seems appropriate to use her perfectly reduced breasts as a guideline.) I was dejected after the whole thing, like a piece of meat shuttled between offices, so my mom made me an appointment with Dr. L., a family friend back in Dallas. She knew that I’d procrastinate forever if left to my own devices, much like I still do for airplane reservations.
After examining me, Dr. L. took measurements of my breasts, including the acreage between my nipple and my rib cage; that particular measurement would generally indicate how small we could go while also keeping my breasts at a reasonable proportion for my height and weight. Keeping within that ratio would also allow him to keep my nipple mostly attached for the surgery, leaving me with whatever feeling was left after all those piercings. We flipped through a book of before and after photos, I pointed out the breasts I liked best, and he showed me what I would probably look like by the time he was done; then he took my before photo. He knew I’d already thought about the decision to have the surgery for months, if not years, and that there wasn’t really much to discuss except when to schedule the surgery. We decided to do it over Thanksgiving, which would give me about a week to recover in Dallas. I don’t think anything he could have said would have dissuaded me. But I was terrified.
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As opposed to the more old-fashioned and barbaric surgery my mom’s friend had described, the most common breast reductions these days leave the nipples mostly intact. If you look closely, I have anchor-shaped scars from the bottom of each nipple, down to where my breast meets my ribcage, and then across to the area beneath my armpit. The remaining tissue had been basically stuffed up high on my chest so it could fall into a natural shape; initially, the bottom of each breast was like a pocket waiting to be filled. (Yes, I’m getting a bit woozy writing this.) Not only did I not have to wear a bra for months, I wasn’t allowed to! It was incredible.
Initially, it felt like the plastic surgeon had rummaged around in my actual subconscious as well as my torso. Although I knew logically that my life wouldn’t change after I got my reduction, I was still disappointed that I wasn’t suddenly happy with my body; my breasts had obfuscated my generous belly, for starters. My love life didn’t radically upend itself. My self-esteem still struggled. I felt out of touch with this new, weird body and its breasts that felt numb in places and had horrible lumpy bits that sent my doctors scurrying to order sonograms every year. Dr. L. explained, to my surprise, that the surgery had created scar tissue in my breasts and that trying to remove the lumps could just cause more. The nerves in my breasts jangled as they came alive again over the next year or so, shocking me with pain. Is this what puberty had been like? If so, I’d effectively blocked it out and was experiencing it all over again.
Not only did I not have to wear a bra for months, I wasn’t allowed to! It was incredible.
Ten years gone, and there are things I take for granted which once shocked me with delight; not having to bend over and wriggle into bras is a major one, as is waking up without a backache. Although my breasts have sprung back to a 38D from a more manageable 34C, I can still find bras at my local undergarment store, where the woman who sizes me up and fits me perfectly comments on how wonderfully my breasts have healed. (Shout out to Orchard Street Corset!) Eventually, I calmed down both literally, when the zombie breast nerves stopped zapping me with pain, and figuratively, when I began to take for granted all of the conveniences of smaller breasts. “Don’t freak out, but there’s a lot of dead tissue in there so it’s gonna feel lumpy!” I cheerfully warn new doctors and sonogram technicians. (I still get vaguely nauseated when people press on the inner scar tissue itself, for some inexplicable reason.) But even with all of these caveats and gory details, my only wish is that I’d gotten the surgery sooner.
In the end, it was my own insecurity that made me prioritize my so-called feminist street cred over happiness. Seizing control of my body — and my pleasure — was the most empowering decision I’ve ever made. (It’s also a privileged and costly decision that I wish everyone had access to.) Although plenty of people think of breast reduction as somehow more valid or acceptable than augmentation or facelifts, my decision was based as much on aesthetics as it was on daily discomfort. As it turns out, it’s no better or worse than any other choices we make with our bodies every day. I’d never questioned other people’s bodily autonomy, but I couldn’t extend myself the same empathy. Now, I’m so glad I did.